The Phenomenology of Madness: An Initial Exploratory Thought

The Phenomenology of Madness: An Initial Exploratory Thought

Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” has long intrigued me since my undergrad days 14 years ago. To this day it remains a song I find myself going back to from time to time. It combines both that open horizon feel, characteristic of prog-rock songs, and that tinge of sadness and reflection connected to the song’s subject. The song is both a tribute and a song of regret surrounding the founding member of Pink Floyd in the late ’60s, Syd Barrett, who was the main songwriter and led the band through their first album in 1967 (“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”). Yet as well-known in ‘Floyd mythos, Barrett began to show erratic, unstable behavior after the album’s release, in between the show’s tour. Some attribute it to a period when he increased his recreational use of LSD and other drugs, but others (probably more plausible) attribute it to a combination of this and pre-existing mental illness, like schizophrenia, which the drugs “activated”. Yet there was never a clear answer for what happened: someone who was stable and then at some point began his mental decline… Some say the final song on the “Piper” album, “Bike”, was a kind of harbinger of things to come, especially with the final line, “let’s go into the other room and make them [the ‘musical tunes’] work”. At some point the band eventually stopped picking him up for band practices when there was no hope of improvement, and effectively Barrett and Pink Floyd drifted apart… Like a wound that never healed, Pink Floyd would continually come back to that theme of madness in various songs and albums in their career, whether directly or indirectly dealing with Syd Barrett and their relationship with him. It was that madness that inspired their defining masterpieces, despite the underlying tragedy that Syd’s madness meant a departure from the familiar world of order, relation, logos, and the possibility for friendship.

Though this is only one account of “madness”, it is part of a general question I’ve had about the idea of madness, which goes across quite a large spectrum. It seems when most people in the common marketplace talk about “madness”, it’s in a kind of negative, if almost derisive, sense. There is nothing good about madness: it implies the opposite of reason, put-togetherness, sanity, being “clear in the head”, and so on. When I say someone is “mad”, it is either to express exaggeration (“how ridiculous!” as if to say, how beyond-reason is this…), or to say someone is out of touch with reality—a fortiori out of touch with being able to communicate with other people, to relate with the rest to the world and to communicate that with others. Depending on the severity, such people can’t function in normal society and are usually committed in mental hospitals or some kind of therapeutic center or monastery. It usually doesn’t imply a good thing.

Yet on the other hand, we see the inverse of these accounts of “madness”—as a trait belonging to those enraptured in divine visions, connected to the gods (or the sole God), as something “above” the world of the familiar, even above reason. Plato, for instance, hypothesizes that the good actor of plays either must be brilliant in fooling his audience and lying, or he must be purely mad—i.e. divinely possessed. One also sees this in Plato’s account in the Phaedrus of souls possessed by intense, erotic desire when they see beauty, ultimately as coming from Beauty-itself, or the gods. Such descriptions imply that madness (at least of this variety) is a good thing—and not just good, but the greatest good. In contexts like these, madness is often directly correlated to divine possession: the possessed person is so enraptured with the gods, that when he or she tries to communicate the experience to others… others think that person is crazy (i.e. the bad kind of madness). One can see this in the Byzantine Christian spiritual tradition with the category of the “holy fool” or “fool for Christ”, such as St. Simeon the Holy Fool (~6th cent. AD), who for most of their lives are perceived as simply insane or crazy… and it isn’t till either late in life or well past death that their sainthood, rather than mere insanity, is realized.1

The funny thing about these two angles of “madness” is that it is epistemologically difficult, or just downright impossible, to tell which is which. How can you tell if somebody who seems to be out of touch with reality, displaying behavior showing there is something out of touch with the world and people around him, is perhaps truly divinely possessed (“mad” in a “good” way)…or simply just insane (in the “bad” way)?

This phenomena exists on a spectrum too: we need not limit cases of apparent madness to someone who simply can’t communicate, wanders aimlessly around streets, makes strange motions and whistles like a dog at every object on a street. One could be drunk and still talking to others, somewhat comprehensible, one foot on the ground…but clearly the other foot not there (e.g. slurring, getting into odd topics, etc.). Such variations of madness, it seems, could extend to behavior (slurring) or topics of conversation (odd topics), or even to beliefs about the world (e.g. lizard people). So then one could think of a mad person who falls into all three categories as if “stark raving mad”… or one could perhaps also think of someone who is mostly functioning, but maintains beliefs about the world that, in the end, are completely out of touch with reality…and acts based on them. Yet one could also ask, is it enough to hold beliefs that are completely out of touch with reality that counts as “mad”? Or is it also acting in accord with those beliefs that counts as “mad”? More generally, what is the cut-off or criterion for what one might call “mad” or otherwise in these different cases? Is it the same for both the generic, “bad” kind as well as the “good”, divinely-possessed kind? Or is there a difference in criteria for both? (Assuming one can find out the difference…which is hard to impossible, as we said above.)

Overall, as the reader can see, I’m curious to investigate the phenomenology of madness, or at least its boundaries without descending full on into…madness. One reason this topic interests me stems from my background interests in the Neoplatonists’ notion of a first principle beyond Being, and hence beyond reason, since reason (or rather intellect, nous) is identical with Being. Because the principle is “beyond” being, they are emphatic to distinguish the principle’s—i.e. the One’s—kind of “beyondness” from pure non-existence, which is also “beyond” being, but in a lower sense: the One does exist (or at least, we could say, the gods as instantiations of the One) in a way non-existent beings do not. An example of this is matter: the One mirrors matter insofar as both are not characterized by Being, hence totally deprived of forms—however the One lies at one side of the spectrum (as cause), matter at the other side (as substrate). This implies a paradox: matter and the One seem almost indistinguishable from each other—or also, non-existence and beyond-existence seem indistinguishable from each other. There is a link…and yet a clear distinction. The reader can see the clear parallel to madness above: there is divine madness and pure out-of-touch-with-reality madness, like non-existence, but which is which?

I think this is an important question, and not just an intellectual thought-experiment or something relegated to the realm of abstract metaphysics (at least to the degree it is removed from the realm of praxis). Because it seems to be related to how we live our lives, what the aim of our lives are, and ultimately part of a therapeutic approach to ordering our lives toward well-being and the goal of life, “madness” is something maybe we can’t avoid: that maybe it’s what we should aim for—and simultaneously stand back from the edge of. Gregory Shaw, in an LA Book Review piece on Peter Kingsley’s Catafalque—in turn on Carl Jung—helps highlight something which many Jungians, it seems, have missed about Jung, especially from Jung’s Red Book: that despite trying to sell “mental health” as the preservation of the ego, i.e. the structure of rationality (at least if I understood Shaw/Kingsley), true individuation (and “health” in this ultimate sense) is a total transcendence beyond the self…and it can be truly frightening.

Coming out of the Neoplatonists (with whom Jung was very obviously familiar, esp. Iamblichus), this shouldn’t be surprising. If the One is the cause of Intellect and Being, but beyond Intellect and Being, and if in turn the soul’s fulfillment is in uniting with the ultimate cause, what is beyond intellect/being… then one will need to go beyond reason at some point. If we draw out the consequence, at least as I think, this seems to suggest something amazingly paradoxical: that divine possession, hence “madness”, is the basis of reason…and reason is the medium for ascending to divine “madness”—and yet only a means. “Therapy” in this sense means a true, all-encompassing challenge to one’s being: it involves centering, coming to terms with reason, but it also involves going beyond oneself, and in a way, beyond “reason”… Like Moses being called into the desert, leading Israel out of Egypt. (I suppose St. Gregory of Nyssa might be apt at some point.)

I’m not yet sure what to make of all this. So far in this piece I’ve only just talked about various notions of “madness” and some correlations to Neoplatonism. But I’m interested to conduct a more all-encompassing analysis of this surrounding phenomena of madness. More may come of this…or maybe this will just be a lingering thought. At least what I aim to show in this piece is that “madness” is not something which we can relegate to a mental hospital, or to the corner of the Twitter universe (e.g., “‘they’ are mad—how can they think that?!”)… that perhaps we are all a little mad, that we may not be right in some sense…but at the same time that maybe there is more to dark madness that we should embrace, but then should also know if we are going in the right direction. If anything, Socrates’ gift to indicate the right path by self-inquiry, and by presenting impasses—aporiai—to trigger these thoughts, is essential for this kind of inquiry and the resulting journey for thinking about madness…


  1. A great Russian movie from 2006, “Ostrov” (in English, “The Island”), encapsulates this phenomenon quite well. The other monks of the monastery where he lives at think the man is insane, and cannot understand his strange, bizarre actions; and yet various miracles happen around the man, even though to the monks—who seem to be, on some level, spiritually sensitive—the aforementioned man is a raving lunatic. 


Header image credit: The cover page of an 1870 book by G. Mackenzie Bacon, "On the Writing of the Insane". The image from the page came from a "respectable artisan of considerable intelligence [who] was sent to the Cambridgeshire Asylum after being nearly three years in a melancholy mood". Apparently it didn't end so well for him soon after.

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

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